I expected a Hallmark type of a movie. The type of movie that casts struggling actors, desperate to break into an industry dominated by only a select few, to make do with the limited budget they have. Usually set in a town with a population of no more than three thousand people, where the main street is the only street, all buildings are made of wood and everybody drives a pickup. But what I got was so much more.
The audience is introduced to the perfect family in a cohesive loving environment about to embark on a camping trip when the eldest children persuade their father to stop at the Multnomah Falls where Mack (Sam Worthington) introduces his youngest daughter, Missy (Amelie Eve) to the legend of the Multnomah Princess. He tells her how there was a terrible disease spreading amongst the indigenous people of the Multnomah tribe. The tribe’s eldest medicine man revealed that the disease had been augured and that the only cure would be if a princess of the tribe sacrifices herself by leaping from the highest cliff. The chief refused to sacrifice one of his daughters and chose to let the disease roam. After one of his daughters saw the suffering the people of her tribe is going through, she decided to take the burden upon herself so her people can once again live the lives they were meant to live. It is at the exact position on the cliff from which she leaped where water started to flow and the people were cleansed.
Skip ahead a few days and the family is about to head home from their vacation when Missy disappears from the camp site. Her clothes, covered in blood, are discovered in an abandoned wooden shack in the middle of the woods. While attempting to deal with the loss of their youngest daughter, the family is torn apart emotionally by a deeply mourning father, rebelling against God. One winter’s day, he discovers a card in his mailbox, inviting him back to the same shack where, presumably, his daughter’s last breath was taken. He commences on a vengeful excursion with an acrimonious heart, to avenge the untimely death of his daughter, ready to face the man who caused it.
He arrives at the snow covered shack with the still bloodstained floor to find that he is alone. As he treads through the thick snow blanket that covers the earth, he sees a man approaching him. The stranger unexpectedly invites him to his cabin to warm up before he heads home. Mack follows him and as he walks on the meandering path, he walks from winter into summer before reaching the exact same shack, now invitingly warm, filled with laughter and sunshine, covered in all that is beautiful in nature. He is introduced to three people; a warm and loving African-American woman – God (Academy Award Winning Octavia Spencer), or Papa as his wife Nan calls Him, a young Asian woman named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara) – The Holy Ghost and Jesus (Aviv Alush), the Middle Eastern man that invited him. Mack is then taken on a journey of healing and forgiveness by the ultimate blissful way any person who believes in a Higher Being could imagine.
The film isn’t a technical masterpiece, but let’s be honest, did we expect it to be? Yes, my hopes did go up when I saw Octavia Spencer as one of the leads in the film, but the Christian Film genre still suffers from a stigma and certain prejudice that I too make myself guilty of. The set design complimented the film well but was nothing more of the bare minimum required to be successful while the CGI was blatantly amateurish and a few instances of discontinuity distracted me. Sam Worthington might benefit by a few extra hours with a sociolinguist as his accent tended to break a little towards the end of sentences but he made up for it in acting (credit to the director, Stuart Hazeldine, too) by not opting for predictable overly emotional mourning and deranged sadness in specific scenes. As for the rest, it was all up to par. I feel it worthy to mention that I have never, in any production, seen such perfect casting of an actor in a role as Aviv Alush in the role of Christ. He portrayed the role exactly as one would imagine Jesus to be – warm, inviting, friendly and calm, respectful, motivational, loving and kind. Through tactful cinematography when Aviv spoke and the complimenting hint of an Israeli accent, you can’t help but feel at ease.
The film is loaded with subtleties (take note of the front garden at the family’s home during the course of the film) that only gain meaning once it is contemplated and became the topic of discussion amongst friends; such as the fact that God approached Mack as an African-American woman in the film, everything his father wasn’t in order to be more approachable. Another prime example of a subtle message in the film is the attentive direction from the cinematographer to allow Jesus and Sarayu to walk nearly out of the frame every time Mack had to make a tough decision, before turning around to reassure Mack that He loves him and wants him to follow, but it is still his decision. Not once did Sarayu, nor Jesus take Mack’s hand to embark on a journey, or instructed Mack to go with, linking to what God truly wants from us: to follow because we want to. He will show the way and He desperately wants us to take every step with Him, but it should be our choice to do so. It is up to us to make the decision to commit to the journey.
I am an over thinker, especially when it comes to films. I have a longing to understand why every single change in tone, piece of décor, camera angle or line were decided on. I struggled to grasp why Papa came to Mack in the form of an elderly Native American man in the middle of the film because, according to Papa, that day’s activities requires a father figure. That specific day resulted in the start of Mack’s emotional and spiritual healing. What I came up with is the following: The legend that Mack told Missy in the beginning of the film was about a Native American tribe being healed after the sacrifice of the tribe’s princess. Could it be that just as the chief went through a great loss for the people of his tribe to be healed, so Mack had to go walk through the valley of the shadow of death for the immense amount of spiritual healing and intimate relationship to be initiated, drawing a direct comparison with something tangible and known to Mack?
The film doesn’t fit the stigma of the Christian Film genre, nor does it deserve the prejudice I have given it. It is what you make of it. It is an opportunity for you to get to know the heart of the Most High and realize that the very essence of The Holy Trinity is love, nothing less than pure and unconditional love. And if you do not believe, go see it anyway. Not only because I’m hoping that the film speaks to you, but also because you might just understand why some choose to believe. Call it meditation, church, soul searching or whatever you feel comfortable with, but I believe that you will get the insight, clarity or message you long for from The Shack.
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